Review: Femme Fatale

Omnibus Theatre until 27th Oct 2019

Femme Fatale headlines Perception Festival at Omnibus’ Theatre; this is the 5th year for this festival which aims to bring some of the lesser heard voices to Omnibus stages; including female identifying and queer voices. 

In this new play by Polly Wiseman, we bear witness to an imagined meeting between Nico (Polly Wiseman), of Velvet Underground and Valerie Solanas (Sophie Olivia) –  prolific feminist, lesbian, and writer of The S.C.U.M Manifesto.  It’s an interesting premise for a story and was simultaneously humorous and thought provoking. Included were moments of Valerie directly addressing the audience as though trying to recruit us for her cause – which added lightness to the piece. I wonder if the real Valerie may have been a bit harsher towards her audiences; Olivia played her acerbity with a twinkle in the eye and in moments with a childlike vulnerability, which couldn’t help but win you over – how delightful to see this queer female voice onstage; I don’t mind if she was quite different from the real Valerie. Nico is the contrast, cold, and pessimistic – Wiseman is enjoyable to watch in this role and gives a convincingly good portrayal.  There was something quite captivating about this piece and the stories of these two women. The journeys they had traveled up to this collision and their experiences of the world, set them apart in their feminist values – but the moments where they meet; where they bridge the gap, are a real gift for the audience. At it’s heart, Femme Fatale is a blaring call to action, a fervent reminder to keep the momentum of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements going.

I must admit, I have grappled with feminism over the past couple of years, as I’ve frequently found that my feminism (especially as a queer woman) doesn’t always align with that of my peers and counter parts; large swathes of feminism have become more obviously exclusionary, which has often made me want to step-away; from the movement not the cause.  So it feels important to commend Polly Wiseman’s new play, Femme Fatale for reigniting a spark within me, and reminding me the importance of knowing our feminist roots. I was aware of the SCUM Manifesto, but knew very little of its creator Valerie Solanas and for all the fiction in this piece, it’s also hugely educational. In joining the dots between feminism across the past 40 years, it left me wanting to go home and do my own further research in to both of these characters and the feminist movement during the 60s and beyond. 

Another highlight of the evening for me was being invited to add my own words to a new feminist manifesto at the end of the play, it brought the piece full circle and the installation of audience voices in the space was a nice touch with an impact, and being invited to remain in the theatre following the show, reflect on my thoughts and add to the manifesto felt meaningful.  

Back in the bar after the show, I found myself immediately immersed in a deep discussion around contemporary feminism, with friends old and new, a passionate and personal conversation fuelled by the events we’d just witnessed, and if that’s not theatre doing the very best job it can, then I’m not sure what is. 

Femme Fatale runs at Omnibus Theatre until 27th October as part of Perception Festival, which also has a number of other shows on over the course of the month.

Book Now

© Amie Taylor 2019

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Review: Bareback

4*
2nd Oct – Hen and Chickens London
This show has now closed

The expression “there’s a lot going on here” couldn’t have been more true of Horseplay’s latest show, Bareback. From an aspiring gay, Irish astronaut to the comic capers of Cori & Gina via the latest hit TV show Hottie Island where hot men duke it out to be the least emotionally expressive and empathetic, performers-singers-actors-comedians Derek Mitchell and Kathy Maniura take us on am absurd roller coaster ride with added jet packs.

In essence, the show is all about sex. The things no one tells us, the things we grow up believing, the things we’re shamed for and a whole host of other unhelpful narratives about what we should do, how long for and who with. Maniura and Mitchell are the tour guides of this wild and witty journey and it’s a delight to see them scroll through a number of great comic characters. Whilst I particularly liked Cori & Gina (aka anus and vagina), there was also a brief guest appearance from Timothée Chalamet and The Actress, destined to tread the boards (the Wife of Bath and the artisanal sex toy saleswoman were also fab but they didn’t get to hang around for very long). Oh, and most of the show takes place in the afterlife. If you’re struggling to put all the pieces together it’s best to just go and see it. I laughed a lot and felt in good hands for the hour, even when I was asked to hold a wooden dildo.

I think there was a poignant, nuanced take-home message somewhere underneath the absurdity but what it was I wasn’t quite sure. Personally, I didn’t need a moral and felt it might have got a bit lost under the comic capers. While I liked Cori’s heartfelt monologue on the pride and shame of bare backing it came as a bit of a surprise and seemed a bit incongruous in the light of what had gone before. Nevertheless, Maniura and Mitchell are hilarious, multi-talented folks and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

© Robert Holtom 2019

Follow Horseplay on Facebook for details of future shows.

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Image © Riccardo Salamanna

Interview: Marie McCarthy

As we embark upon October, Omnibus Theatre heads in to its fifth year of Perception Festival, this year with the theme Nasty Women. Headlining is the show Femme Fatale, an imagined meeting between “Andy Warhol’s muse and his would-be assassin” which promises to be an “unconventional dark comedy about fame, failure, and feminism.” Other shows include: I’d Rather go Blind, Havisham, The Frog Princess Punked and The Cocoa Butter Club. We interviewed artistic director Marie McCarthy about Perception Festival, this year’s line up and what inspired their theme of Nasty Women.

AT: This is the fifth year that Perception Festival has taken place at Omnibus Theatre, what inspired the first year of the festival?

MM: I am really interested in how we judge people, mostly based on little to no information, and we assume quite a lot. And it’s always struck me that if we didn’t do this, we could avoid quite a lot of issues and problems. It interests me how lack of knowledge allows people sometimes to be deeply unforgiving So Perception Festival is about judgement, how people judge us and how we deal with that; it’s the human condition. The first one was called Voyage and was about people’s journeys, leaving a land they were familiar with and arriving in a new space, and what they dealt with in that change and encountering that new environment.

AT: And what’s your opinion on theatre having the power to make that change in society – do you think it can?

MM: Yes, it can. It can open up the potential for debate; it can create a platform whereby you can see a different perspective. And you have empathy, because that’s the wonderful thing about theatre, you’re watching human beings; you are watching yourself. It’s shining a light on a situation, that can absolutely give you more knowledge, give you an insight in to something you hadn’t known or experienced before. Once you get empathy you get compassion and once you get compassion, things get less messed up.

AT: And this year your theme is Nasty Women, how did that come about?

MM: I’ve always really wanted the themes for Perception Festival to come from our organisation and the people who work here, I’m really keen that someone comes up to me and says “We really need to talk about…” This year, our marketing officer Ellie Grice, actually came up with the title Nasty Women, for Perception Festival, which felt so fitting and so right. As you know Donald Trump used the phrase during the 2016 presidential campaign in reference to Hilary Clinton. Originally a sexist slur, it’s now become a rally cry. This selection of work is about women in their skin, unapologetically doing their thing and each piece of work represents a celebration of that.

AT: What do you hope this festival will say?

MM: Hear unheard voices and stories that we don’t know much about and the selection in the programme of this festival looks at and showcase those stories. I’m hoping when people see the headline show Femme Fatale, they’ll have a bit of a historical insight of Nico and Valerie; of course it’s a fictional meeting, but they will learn a little bit about these iconic women of the 60s. Havisham questions our understanding of marriage and traditional marriage.  If they come to the Frog Princess Punked they will see this fairytale retold with a hybrid of spoken word and underscored by a punk band. When you take a classic and spin it around, which is the work we make ourselves [at Omnibus Theatre], you have a potential of getting a light in somewhere, and seeing something in a slightly different way. It’s about breaking and busting notions up. My hope is people will leave saying ‘Ah, I get that.’

AT: And there are a number of LGBT+ voices programmed as part of this festival are there any pieces you’re particularly excited about?

MM: Femme Fatale, highlights two incredible women of the 60s – an imagined meeting between Andy Warhol’s muse, Nico and his would-be assassin, Valerie Solanas. It’s a great piece of storytelling mixed with cabaret and super 8 footage, live music and stand-up.

AT: As a venue you programme a lot of LGBT+ work, why is it so important to you to programme those voices?

MM: Because I identify, I’m a queer woman, I’m interested in intersectionality and those voices that aren’t heard. Marginalised voices. It feels important to me. We’re a female-led organisation, so it’s important to me to platform work by female identifying artists, to redress the imbalance.

AT: And do you feel like you have seen a shift over the past 20 years in terms of the balance and if yes, what has that shift looked like?

MM: The shift is that the balance is changing and it still needs a lot of work. I started as an actor and in terms of parts that were available to play, it was the girl-next-door and then the mother. If you have a lot of male writers, they write male stories. So I’m promoting female-identifying work, writers, directors, actors because we need those voices to get out there.

AT: How have your audience responded to this work?

MM: We’re only six years old and as I’ve been here since the start so have got to know the audiences and seen the development first hand. Our first audience were primarily a local traditional theatre going audience but now we have a really mixed demographic. Take our most recent show LIT, which is a great example of that; we had a local college audience in alongside a traditional theatre going audience, alongside people that had travelled from North London to see the work. And the local audience here trust us as an organisation, they will test things out. I’m loving that in terms of audience development.

Have there been any difficulties that you’ve encountered in trying to schedule that work?

We’re an independent organisation and what we’re missing is funding to commission people. I would love to have a pot of money for writers, to enable to spend some time writing away from having to do their day jobs, so all we can do is offer support via free space via our scratch nights Engine Room.

Perception Festival runs throughout October at Omnibus Theatre, Clapham Common, London.

Femme Fatale runs 8th – 27th October: Book Now
I’d Rather Go Blind runs 1st – 5th October: Book Now
How to Catch a Bear, 4th Oct: Book Now
The Frog Princess Punked, 12th Oct: Book Now
Havisham runs 15th – 19th Oct: Book Now
The Cocoa Butter Club, 18th Oct: Book Now

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Book Review: The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess

By Tara McDowell

Tara McDowell’s The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess is a deftly sketched portrait of a late-twentieth century gay couple and the inspiring way they ‘salvaged’ themselves a home with influences from their creative practice, politics and the people who inspired them.

The book examines the relationship of Robert Duncan and Jess Collins, a writer and artist in a well-structured manner. In other words, this isn’t a romp through their San Francisco world. Instead, it’s a careful and detailed examination of how a couple, rejected the dangers of being so open about their sexuality in conservative America and created something special to inspire many today, from creatives to modern LGBT+ couples. Tara McDowell heaps the attention traditionally awarded to heterosexual couples rather than offering up a more salacious take or overly deferential.

We see all their quirks and foibles in addition to how well the couple complemented each other. This is not only within the household and artistically as first mentioned, but we learn tidbits on how Duncan was the more business-minded of the two. Duncan “doggedly promoted Jess’s work […] attempting to drum up sales and shows alike”.

The book does struggle however, to sketch out as clear a portrait of Jess. Even in its title, Jess feels secondary to Duncan. McDowell does try to craft a thorough portrait of the pair, particularly through their personality differences – “Jess as the reclusive housewaif, Duncan as the socially hungry poet-wanderer”. This applies to their art as Jess was much more reluctant to speak for his art, instead letting the images speak for themselves.

Though, the inclusion of Jess’s captivating collages in the book make up for this lack of information on Jess. The author is rigorous in providing evidence for her statements generally, but the images themselves suffice to strengthen her arguments.

While she offers some analysis on the collages – helpful for the less artistically-minded reader – Jess’s collages critiquing gender roles, particularly those of women, demonstrate McDowell’s earlier points on Jess as a proto-feminist without preaching.

In fact, even when McDowell more definitively shares her interpretation, she goes beyond obvious first assumptions. The book has a tricky tension between the fact the pair’s household subverts a “normal” heteronormative household at the time as such an openly gay couple and at times the pair “were conscious of occupying” “the highly gendered roles of the American household”.

As mentioned earlier, Jess may have been the “housewaif” by his own letters, but from McDowell’s close analysis of Duncan’s poetry, she uncovers how this wasn’t a “passive” role but a forceful guardian and Jess is reported to have policed who could enter their home. While there is a tinge of a critique on this “exclusionary” attitude thanks to the first-person quotes from friends, McDowell is careful not to offer too much judgement.

Although here, she occasionally weakens her own argument by not interrogating key points such as Duncan’s infidelities when Jess remained in the home. The author seems to more positively see the house as the key method for the pair to overcome unfaithfulness.

Whereas, to use one of McDowell’s own parallels to the 1950s image of a waiting housewife and Duncan as the man on a business trip, her discussion fails to acknowledge how Duncan can appear more like a philanderer. It could be suggested that Duncan was comfortable in the knowledge that his marriage will stay together for the sake of the kids (or house) that he and Jess shared. Even McDowell’s acknowledgement of Duncan’s privilege of retaining a relationship and financial support from his family in comparison to the estranged Jess, is significant.

It was a decades-long relationship but modern readers may wonder how much freedom Jess had to leave – similar to many wives at the time!

Interestingly for today’s reader, the writer prefers to stress how unique the pair were and give an important context. The book intrigues as it informs us that there may have been LGBT+ couples housing together, yet Duncan and Jess feel unique.

This, with how Duncan and Jess combined so many facets of their lives, often leaves the reader in wonder – not how did an LGBT+ couple manage this, rather how did any couple manage to create so unified a household until their deaths, especially against the background of the twentieth century’s many changes?

McDowell aptly points out that many of their issues like “the rise of authoritarianism” and environmental concerns have had a “troubling resurgence in contemporary life.” As promised, their story resonates today.

Ultimately however, as McDowell also promises, you close the last chapter feeling that the book is “last, but not least, a love story” for all couples.

© Daljinder Johal 2019

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Review: Chiaroscuro

The Bush Theatre until 5th October 2019

Do you know where your name came from? Chiaroscuro’s punchy opening brings us four women all revealing the origin of their names. It’s written so that we immediately feel a connection to and affinity with each character. Beth (Shiloh Coke) is a confidently out lesbian, battling with her surfacing past, whilst Aisha (Preeya Kalidas), a carpenter, has her own inner turmoils. Opal (Anoushka Lucas) grew up in foster care, and faces a struggle with her identity and Yomi (Gloria Onitiri), a single mother, confronts the impact of racial abuse and microaggressions she has experienced throughout her life. 

It’s completely thrilling that The Bush Theatre have initiated the Passing The Baton scheme, in which they have revived a series of works from playwrights of colour, Chiaroscuro being the concluding play in this initiative. 

Written by Jackie Kay and directed by Lynette Lynton, Chiaroscuro was first performed at The Soho Poly in 1986. My initial thought was that it would have been ahead of it’s time, but I doubt it was – fringe theatre has always been ahead of it’s time, thankfully in 2019 the voices of queer people and QPOC are finally taking up their places on larger stages, albeit far later than is excusable. Lynton keeps this piece firmly rooted in the 80s, which is where it belongs – I think it would fall flat with any attempts to modernise it.  Despite the 33 year interlude between it’s first performance and now, Chiaroscuro still has plenty to say, whilst seemingly saying very little. There’s a beautiful simplicity sitting amongst the intricate language, a homophobic comment at a dinner party which triggers a series of responses from the characters that keep the audience engaged throughout. 

Gig-theatre is currently all the rage, and Lynton’s choice to place this version in this category is what makes it such a success; music composed and directed by Shiloh Coke who also plays the role of Beth, pumps life and joy into this story, and her songs are the perfect counterpart to Kay’s lyrical writing. 

The cast keep this lively piece up on it’s toes for the duration of an hour and twenty minutes, and you can’t help but empathise with the portrayal of the characters across their struggles. All sing fabulously. If anything, I felt a couple of the characters bordered on underdeveloped, particularly Aisha whose story I felt left us hanging. Nonetheless, this was a vibrant and uplifting night at the theatre, and despite dealing with the topics of homophobia and racism, left us with ripples of hope as we left the auditorium. 

Book Now

© Image Johan Persson

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Q & A: Sophia O’Donohue

Sophia O’Donohue is currently rehearsing for Willow, on at The Bunker Theatre, London, this September, in which she plays Lottie. Willow takes a look at the fault lines in Lottie and her ex-girlfriend Gabi’s relationship, what caused the break-up and how it was different from the two perspectives. We caught up with Sophia this week to find out more.

Questions by Amie Taylor

AT: Tell us a little about you an actor and how you came to do what you do now?

SO: I’ve always been involved in performing arts, but lost my confidence as I progressed from a teenager into a young adult. However, it’s projects such as ‘Willow’ that have allowed me to grow as an actor since it’s a story I believe I can tell because of its honest and direct insight Into a relationship involving two women.

AT: You’re currently playing Lottie in Willow coming to the Bunker in Sept – what is it about?

SO: ‘Willow’ is essentially a recap of events, going from the start relationship to the breakup, however along the way Gabi and the audience discovers it’s not as one sided as she thinks. As the play progresses we start to see the other sides of a break up which are often left out.

AT: Why is this an important piece for 2019?

SO: I think a 2019 audience will be able to identify with it in many ways as it firstly offers to queer audiences a chance to feel as though their experiences and stories are being told. Also for non queer people, they are still able connect with the ups and downs of a relationship, showing the similarities within all relationships. And I guess in some ways ‘Willow’ brings separate social communities together.

AT: How is it going so far?

SO: We are having a lot of fun with looking at back-stories and the journeys in which these characters have made, that brought them up until the point in the play, which has really helped them feel like full rounded people that I could meet in real life.

AT: What are your favourite things about playing this character?

SO: Lottie has personally allowed me to think through things from someone else’s perspective. As well as this I think this relationship has made up a big part of this character’s life and we see Lottie come a long way, even if it isn’t entirely from her view point. But it has been enjoyable to communicate this moment in time in Lottie’s life to audiences.

AT: Have there been any challenges?

SO: For me, it has to be portraying Lottie’s Dad in the multi-rolling scene, for this character I’ve been watching a lot of Stephen Fry and Richard Hammond to be able to have down ‘dadish’ mannerisms!

AT: Describe the show in 6 words…

SO: Vital, frank, passionate, identifiable, funny and sadly-beautiful.

Willow will be on at The Bunker Theatre, London at 8.30pm on 8th, 9th, 15th and 16th September. Get your tickets here.

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Review: Chambers of Flavour

If you’re going on a hot-date and want to impress with a quirky and unique experience to remember, then Gingerline’s Chamber of Flavours, a multi-dimensional dining adventure, is probably the thing for you.

It’s hard to write a review for something I’m sworn to secrecy on, but if you’re a sucker for immersive experiences and organised fun, then you will likely love this, I had a fabulous time.  Moving through different rooms, spaces and dimensions, you will meet a number of bizarre characters, and sample some breathtaking cuisine. Don’t eat beforehand, you’ll be sufficiently fed en route. Be prepared to engage with a range of actors – there’s plenty of opportunity for chatting, and like it or not – you’re going to get involved (in a fun and memorable way.) And be prepared for anything.  I was relaying my adventure recently to someone a couple of decades older than myself, and they had to stop me halfway through to check if  I was telling them about something that actually happened or a dream I had – even as I write this review, my memory of it is that it was so kaleidoscopic and weird that I’m hoping it wasn’t just a dream, I could lose some serious reviewing cred for that…

At times the experience did feel a little like a mash of too many things: escape room AND immersive theatre AND dining experience all in one.  If anything, it didn’t need the escape room element, it was plenty without.

On a practical note, if you have access requirements you will need to relay these to Gingerline beforehand. This isn’t for the fussy eater, however – they cater for a range of dietary requirements and allergies, including vegans  – fab news for all you plant-based adventurers! I also recommend giving them a heads up if you’re alcohol free, and ask if you can have a tee total equivalent of the welcome cocktail.

Tickets are available at £55-£75, and if you choose to partake in some of their incredible cocktails, you’re looking at £100 per head for the evening – which may seem a lot, but if you compare it to the cost of a West End show, with dinner before and drinks, it probably comes in at about the same cost for the evening and you wouldn’t feel hard done by at the end of it.

As my plus-one pointed out, in 2019 there’s rarely immediate danger to be found in London – we’re talking lions, tiger and bears (oh my) so sometimes the need to experience a bit of faux-danger is entirely necessary – there is something quite hilarious about watching a group of grown adults buy in to the story that they are plummeting in to the centre of the earth to discover new flavours – ah humans. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a blast of an evening out and a good story to tell, Gingerline’s Chamber of Flavours will be right up your street.

Image © Emma Nathan

Find out when the next tickets for this experience are released and book here.

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